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Both terms get bandied about when talking about tidying up your home, but organizing and clutter clearing are two very different things. Clearing clutter is actually removing items from your space, while organizing is putting what’s left in order. Here’s why you need to do both to have a space that feels good and functions efficiently, plus tips on which stage comes first and what to remember at each stage in the process.

Clearing clutter comes first. Attempting to “get organized” before clearing clutter is putting the cart before the horse, and it’s likely to waste not only a lot of energy, but money too — on unnecessary storage containers! Always begin by seeing what you can let go of, and physically remove it from the space before you move on to organizing what’s left.

The garage principle. A good way to picture why you must clear clutter before organizing is what I like to think of as the garage principle. Imagine a garage, completely crammed full of stuff: so much stuff that you literally cannot walk in, let alone park a car there. If you were to simply “organize” such a space, it would perhaps look neater, with everything sorted by category and stacked up in attractive containers — but the containers would still reach the roof, and the space still wouldn’t function as anything more than a storage unit. By clearing out the unnecessary junk first, you can create more space, which will help in the next phase when you organize what’s left.

So what is clutter, exactly? To paraphrase the words of William Morris, clutter is anything in your home you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. I would add that it also includes anything that simply does not fit within the space you currently have, and anything, material or immaterial, that does not align with the life you truly want to be living.

How much clutter clearing is enough? This is something that can spark intense debate. My take is that each of us must answer that question for ourselves. We all have different comfort levels with how much stuff is in our homes — perhaps you are a minimalist at heart, but maybe you are not. For some, being surrounded by a bounty of favorite things is a real joy. If you’re honest with yourself and look into your heart, you probably already know which camp you fall into.

Where to begin? The short answer is: It doesn’t matter where you begin, as long as you do. That said, consider which area of your home would have the biggest positive impact on your daily life if it was decluttered and organized, and start there. Are mornings chaotic? Perhaps you could start in the entryway so you know right where your essential items are as you walk out the door. Or if getting dinner on the table is a pain, getting your kitchen in proper order could help things run more smoothly. Think about your day, identify a problem area and start there.

Organizing basics. Once the excess stuff (the clutter) has been removed, organizing is much easier. The way to get a space organized depends largely on the type of storage you have available. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you get started organizing:

  • Keep like with like (all cutlery together, all papers together).
  • Fit drawers with drawer organizers sized for the type of items you plan to store there.
  • Organize shelving with stackable storage boxes or bins (good for keeping small items contained) or shelf dividers (good for keeping sweaters from toppling over).
  • Organize cabinets with risers (good for dishes) or lazy Susans (good for condiments and other small items).
  • Organize surfaces with trays.
  • Use clear containers when possible; this makes it easier to find what you are looking for.
  • If the container is not see-through, be sure to label the contents.

Quick tips for decluttering and organizing your wardrobe:

  • If you have been keeping clothing for purely sentimental reasons, move these items to a different location. There’s nothing wrong with keeping things because of the memories they evoke; they just don’t belong mixed in with your regular clothes.
  • Get rid of clothing and accessories you can’t remember wearing in recent memory. If you’re hesitating, ask yourself why you haven’t worn the item. Is it uncomfortable? Not your style? Or do you need another piece to make it work in an outfit?
  • Separate clothing that is not appropriate for the current season. You don’t need to move it out of the closet, just be sure your clothes for the current season are front and center.
  • Making your closet more functional doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. A high shelf, some hooks on the wall and a basket or shoe rack on the floor may be all you need.
  • If your closet is very dim, add a light so you can see your clothes.

Quick tips for decluttering and organizing the garage

  • Collect any hazardous materials (weed killer, poisons, most house paint) and bring it to your local hazardous waste recycling and disposal facility.
  • Give away or sell equipment you no longer use.
  • Store frequently used items closer to the door in easily accessible, wall-mounted storage.
  • Store less frequently used items along the back wall or in ceiling-mounted storage.

Quick tips for decluttering and organizing children’s toys:

  • Toss out items that are broken or missing parts. If you think you have the part somewhere, place the item in a separate “lost and found” bin until it resurfaces.
  • Give away or sell toys that are clearly too young for your child.
  • If you want to keep special toys as memorabilia or to hand down to a younger sibling, put them in a storage container away from the toys being currently used.
  • Make toy storage easy for children to use. Think open bins and baskets, cubby-style shelving and clear containers.
  • Rotate toys. Having too many toys out at once makes cleanup a real pain and can overwhelm children. Pack up some of the toys and move them to a high shelf or a closet in another room, and swap some in every few weeks or when you notice your children getting bored with the current offerings. It always amazes me how excited kids get about toys they haven’t seen in a while.

Quick tips for decluttering and organizing the kitchen

  • Get rid of plastic food storage containers without mates.
  • Donate unopened, shelf-stable food items that are still good (but that you know you will not use) to your local food pantry.
  • Give away or sell highly specialized tools and appliances you rarely (if ever) use.
  • Keep frequently used tools near the surface where they are used: knives near the cutting board, wooden spoons near the stove.
  • Store heavy items in lower cabinets, lighter items up higher.

This content is not the product of the National Association of REALTORS®, and may not reflect NAR's viewpoint or position on these topics and NAR does not verify the accuracy of the content.